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Title: A comparative genomic analysis of hydrocarbon synthesis in Desulfovibrio sp.
Author: Dousseaud, Peggy Marie Madeleine
ISNI:       0000 0004 7653 5132
Awarding Body: University of Exeter
Current Institution: University of Exeter
Date of Award: 2018
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To fulfil global energy demand and to mitigate economical, geopolitical and ecological challenges associated with fossil fuel utilisation, the energy sector is moving towards greater use of sustainable and environmentally friendly energy sources, including biofuels. The ideal transport biofuel would be hydrocarbons that are identical to fossil petroleum. However, to date characterised hydrocarbon biosynthetic pathways include a decarbonylation or decarboxylation reaction, which involves the loss of one carbon resulting in odd-numbered carbon chain hydrocarbons. This carbon loss decreases carbon efficiency for alkane production, which reduces microbial fuel economic competitiveness. Therefore, it is key that new pathways for alkane production are identified. The sulphate-reducing bacteria genus Desulfovibrio was previously reported to synthesise even-numbered carbon chain alkanes, which suggests an alternative route for alkane production without carbon loss. This investigation aimed to verify Desulfovibrio alkane biosynthesis and characterise the possible synthetic pathway. Ten Desulfovibrio strains, representing seven species, were screened for alkane synthesis using isotopically labelled growth media. The ability to produce alkanes within the Desulfovibrio genus was confirmed and was shown to be strain-specific under a set of culture conditions. The biogenic alkanes detected were octadecane (C18), nonadecane (C19) and eicosane (C20), with a predominance of even-numbered carbon chain alkanes. Fatty acid analysis of Desulfovibrio strains showed an alkane biosynthetic pathway was unlikely to involve a decarbonylation or decarboxylation step. A novel hypothesis was therefore proposed that alkane biosynthesis by Desulfovibrio follows a metabolic route, which has not previously been characterised, involving a series of reduction reactions from the fatty acid pool. The characterisation of the putative Desulfovibrio hydrogenation pathway for alkane biosynthesis was undertaken via a target-directed genome mining approach. The genomic DNA of nine Desulfovibrio spp. was purified, sequenced, de novo assembled and annotated. Seven of these nine genomes are unpublished to date. No homologs of previously characterised alkane biosynthetic enzymes from bacteria were in silico identified in the genomes and proteomes of alkane producing Desulfovibrio spp., suggesting that Desulfovibrio alkane biosynthetic pathway is likely to be catalysed by currently uncharacterised enzymes. The 16S rRNA-based phylogeny of Desulfovibrio spp. supported the hypothesis that the Desulfovibrio alkane biosynthetic pathway was acquired by a common ancestral strain via horizontal gene transfer. The ability of Desulfovibrio to produce alkanes was therefore hypothesised to be due to the presence of recruited genes encoding enzymes involved in alkane synthesis. A comparative genomic analysis intersecting six-alkane producing and four non-alkane producing Desulfovibrio genomes resulted in the in silico identification of 33 hypothetical proteins considered with high confidence to be exclusive to alkane producing Desulfovibrio strains. A novel hypothetical Desulfovibrio alkane biosynthetic pathway was proposed involving a V-type ATPase, an uncharacterised protein, named as a putative reductase in this investigation, and a putative methyltransferase, which were predicted to be exclusive to alkane producing Desulfovibrio spp. The inorganic phosphates resulting from the ATP hydrolysis catalysed by the V-type ATPase would be involved in a reaction with fatty alcohols to form alkyl phosphates, which are putative activated intermediates required for the hydrogenation route from fatty alcohols to alkanes. The putative reductase and the methyltransferase, predicted to share similar structural features with known alkane-binding proteins, would subsequently reduce alkyl phosphates to alkanes and to iso-alkanes respectively. Empirical investigation of the candidate molecular basis function in Desulfovibrio alkane biosynthesis was undertaken. The Desulfovibrio alkane biosynthetic pathway remains to be fully characterised.
Supervisor: Love, John ; Lee, Rob ; Michell, Stephen Sponsor: Royal Dutch Shell
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available
Keywords: Biofuels ; Hydrocarbons ; Desulfovibrio ; Genomic comparison